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Haim Steinbach @ Berkeley Art Museum

Work in Progress: Objects for People -- Snapshots

Conceptual Wave artist Haim Steinbach can really be described as a curator or ethnographer more so than a craftsman. But in an era in which appropriation still remains the dominant form of expression, perhaps there's no real distinction between the act of discovery and the act of creation. In the Matrix 217 exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum, "Work in Progress: Objects for People -- Snapshots," Steinbach both meets and upends all Duchampian expectations of his work.

While his signature method of creating art from existing objects -- hence, the comparison to Duchamp that both admirers and detractors inevitably draw -- still looms over the pieces, Steinbach's arrangements pay painstaking heed to the spatial dimensions of identity. Steinbach is an artist whose minimalistic installations are both ordinary and ethnographic. He isn't particularly invested in wowing audiences with shock value or inventiveness, but rather, in revealing the cultural and ritualistic fetishes that lurk behind objects as unassuming and pedestrian as a nail file or a pair of sneakers.

Since the heyday of Steinbach's career, back in the late 1970s, his shows often have featured piles of borrowed objects from friends and family, placed like window display items atop shelves or in antiseptic-looking rooms. Tubes of lipstick stand apathetically astride notebooks full of impassioned love letters, and oftentimes, Steinbach's displays have included videotaped footage of the objects' owners, speaking of their own relationship to the items. Accordingly, Steinbach has continuously been cornered into the same box as artists like Duchamp, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger or Peter Halley, who all use object appropriation to their own ends. What's unique about Steinbach's work is that he so radically redefines the status of objects in art by using the objects as cultural referents. Where other artists have used objects as components of a larger message or critique, Steinbach's immaculate arrangements are, quite simply, signifiers of personal and social identity.

In "Work in Progress," Steinbach's displays are nearly as important as the objects he scrutinizes: mattresses, children's toys, ratty Nike sneakers, wastepaper receptacles. The very choice of display, whether it be minimal industrial shelving units or large, roomy, vestibules, is indicative of the sort of personality under inspection. Viewing Steinbach's displays is an eerily intimate act; indeed, the artist is interested in defining identity, taste, and personal proclivities through his objects. It's a strangely archaeological concept: in the absence of the person, his or her possessions are the only existing indicators of identity. The featured pieces, therefore, become symbolic relics, and gallery-goers, for all intents and purposes, become displaced spectators attempting to recreate narratives from items that are usually placed incongruously alongside each other.

Some of Steinbach's most famous works are invested in the manner in which language becomes both a cultural and philosophical identifier, and how the act of "reading" is tantamount to the vital act of memorization and preservation integral to cultural survival. His current groupings of objects, which sometimes make sense (e.g. baby dolls and domestic knick-knacks) and other times are unearthed more circuitously, have all the appeal of personal belongings that are secretly and serendipitously stumbled upon. The idea at the heart of the exhibition is that in walking into a person's home or riffling through his or her dresser drawers, we don't merely get a peek into aesthetic discriminations or individual hobbies. The possessions unlock the very essence of identity: who we are, where we come from, what we desire, what we fear, and what we love.

The ritualization of humdrum objects isn't a new idea -- storytellers, historians, and anthropologists have been doing it for millennia. But in general, people have divested themselves of the responsibility to make sense of our surroundings by virtue of the most commonplace things in our keeping; it would require a degree of wonder we don't usually attribute to our own inglorious lives. Steinbach takes on various roles -- ethnographer, archivist, historian, storyteller -- in order to reveal the aesthetic and social qualities beneath our most compulsory possessions. Thus, perhaps the stark novelty behind Steinbach's arrangements is the act of mythmaking that must occur in order for it all to mean anything.

"Works in Progress" is on display through September 4.